To celebrate the release of Boreta’s very first solo audiovisual piece, we commissioned an essay from Tero Parviainen, a musical software developer who has worked closely with the artist. Parviainen considers generative sound in relation to virtual worldbuilding, offering a fresh perspective on how to experience computer music and a critical grounding for our latest exhibition on generative sound.
“An encounter with a generative music system can feel like being in an immersive game. The composer designs a musical world for you to explore. Your experience within it is completely unique, yet you can find commonalities and connections with other people who went there.”
Whenever I’m asked to define the concept of generative music, I typically contrast it with recorded music: instead of creating a singular musical artefact that is then repeated exactly every time someone listens to it, we devise an autonomous system that embodies the theories and rules of a particular kind of music. That system can then realise a potentially infinite number of variations. A million tunes for the price of one. The system often takes the form of computer software, as is the case with the works in this exhibition.
I’ve recently started to feel that this definition, while useful for framing the concept of generative music, sets up a false dichotomy. There really is no such thing as two completely identical musical experiences, even in the case of recorded music. When you hear the same song today that you heard yesterday, the song might be the same but you are different. Your brain and nervous system have been transformed by another day of life lived. Because of that, the experiential footprint of the musical stimulus in your mind is new and unique, never before felt by anyone. In this sense, all music is generative music. No one ever steps in the same river twice.
If you accept this idea of generativity permeating all music, where does that leave us with music that we specifically call generative? Why bother with all this difficult system design business?
For one thing, there are many situations in which adapting music to a specific functional purpose is called for. We have music that adapts to the speed at which we run, music that adapts to the emotional context of a meditation or therapy session, music that adapts to the pace of a battle scene in a computer game. This need for adaptation requires a generative system, as recorded music cannot adapt or does so awkwardly at best.
Outside of these functional contexts, what is the point of music being unique every time you listen to it? Is this idea not in fact detrimental to the notion of music as shared experience? When you find a song you love, you want to be able to share it with your friends. Can you do that when you don’t know that your friends will hear what you heard because the music generated differently for them?
In many kinds of music, I do agree that we don’t really want generative variation. Think of a song you truly love. Chances are you love every detail of it. If a vocal phrase, or a bass lick, or a drum fill was performed any way differently, it would seem to diminish from the experience. You love it exactly as it is.
But not all kinds of music are like this. Other kinds of music are more like worlds you inhabit, that have a certain character that makes you feel a certain way, but in which not every detail needs to always be the same. Brian Eno’s ambient works, and the countless other ambient pieces they have inspired, are like this. These musical experiences are more akin to places you visited than specific timelines of musical events.
Here we can draw an analogy to computer games. I recently concluded a long playthrough of Red Dead Redemption 2 and found myself having quite a powerful emotional attachment to it. I’ve compared my experience with several others who have felt the same. We’ve talked about specific events in the game and the protagonist’s journey within it. Yet it is absolutely guaranteed that none of us experienced exactly the same sequence of in-game events. We all weaved our own unique path through the world crafted by the game designers. The game is a generative system, in which players realise their own timelines.
This notion of worldbuilding is where I think generative music comes to its own. An encounter with a generative music system can feel like being in an immersive game. The composer designs a musical world for you to explore. Your experience within it is completely unique, yet you can find commonalities and connections with other people who went there.
We’ve explored this kind of worldbuilding through generative music with Boreta and Aaron Penne in their Rituals and Passages projects. These are longform collections of generative audiovisual art, where every edition is a unique experience and every event is ephemeral, never to be witnessed again. And yet, everyone who’s minted a Ritual or a Passage has taken part in the same shared experience and can justifiably feel they’ve visited somewhere together. Like with a game world, every individual has their own unique encounter with these works, yet it’s all shaped by the world Boreta and Penne have created.
Boreta’s Stream Entry, presented in this exhibition, is the next phase in this adventure. In this project Boreta further develops the idea of worldbuilding by drawing inspiration from architecture and the design of physical space. During the past few months we’ve had countless discussions about the work of Christopher Alexander in particular, and his notions of space as living structure and building design as a process of creating life. By evoking these spatial notions both in the sound and the visuals, the piece accentuates the idea of it being a generated world you get to visit.
Tero Parviainen is a software engineer and music hacker based in Helsinki, Finland. He is the co-founder of Counterpoint, a creative technology unit focusing on audiovisual interactive media, generative music, and web technologies. Tero spends most of his time creating algorithms and systems for music creation, some of them for purely artistic purposes, and others for functional uses such as mental health and wellness.